America’s exceptionalism finds it natural to condition its conduct toward other societies on their acceptance of American values. Most Chinese see their country’s rise not as a challenge to America but as heralding a return to the normal state of affairs when China was preeminent. In the Chinese view, it is the past 200 years of relative weakness – not China’s current resurgence – that represent an abnormality.
America historically has acted as if it could participate in or withdraw from international affairs at will. In the Chinese perception of itself as the Middle Kingdom, the idea of the sovereign equality of states was unknown. Until the end of the 19th century, China treated foreign countries as various categories of vassals. China never encountered a country of comparable magnitude until European armies imposed an end to its seclusion. A foreign ministry was not established until 1861, and then primarily for dealing with colonialist invaders.
America has found most problems it recognized as soluble. China, in its history of millennia, came to believe that few problems have ultimate solutions. America has a problem-solving approach; China is comfortable managing contradictions without assuming they are resolvable.
American diplomacy pursues specific outcomes with single-minded determination. Chinese negotiators are more likely to view the process as combining political, economic and strategic elements and to seek outcomes via an extended process. American negotiators become restless and impatient with deadlocks; Chinese negotiators consider them the inevitable mechanism of negotiation. American negotiators represent a society that has never suffered national catastrophe – except the Civil War, which is not viewed as an international experience. Chinese negotiators cannot forget the century of humiliation when foreign armies exacted tribute from a prostrate China. Chinese leaders are extremely sensitive to the slightest implication of condescension and are apt to translate American insistence as lack of respect.